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Meet Brenda Perez of Restorative Justice For The Arts in Northeast Los Angeles

Today we’d like to introduce you to Brenda Perez.

Brenda, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
My story starts in Northeast Los Angeles or NELA as we like to call it. I am a first-generation Chicana Indígena born and raised in Highland Park. After graduating with a B.A. in both Sociology and Chicano/Chicana Studies, I worked for corporate companies and realized I never wanted to work in a soulless corporate setting ever again. Surviving a wide range of traumatic experiences inspired me to pursue a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at Pepperdine University so that I can help other women of color on their journey towards recovery.

As a research assistant for Pepperdine University’s Culture and Trauma Research Lab, I conducted research on the cultural context of interpersonal/complex trauma and investigated self-esteem improvement strategies for Latino adolescent youth. When I realized standardized Eurocentric praxologies, mainstream psychology, and the mental health system was more proselytizing than helpful towards Indigenous, Mexican and other communities of color, I decided to pursue Depth Psychology. I am a self-proclaimed Chunti psychologist grounded in the fundamentals of this consciousness. I am currently a Ph.D. candidate in a Depth Psychology program that embraces decolonial praxis focusing on Indigenous philosophies and psychologies of liberation.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I don’t remember anything ever being easy for me. It has been a tremendously difficult journey filled with unrelenting obstacles and challenges. I am the first in my family to graduate from college and pursue a doctoral degree. Many families in Los Angeles, especially now, are deeply immersed in survival that they do not have the means or the energy to offer family or financial support. On top of that, the hardships and sacrifices our communities face are minimized and often ignored by the dominant culture.

Despite many obstacles, I personally have managed to achieve all that I have on my own and I take a lot of pride in that. Things are really rough for us out here and I live to encourage others like me to not give up on their dreams. I lead by example and continue to let my community know que si se puede. There will always be that counselor, coach, friend, family member or professor who will discourage or disempower you. I am thankful for those teachers and mentors who intervened and took the time to empower or encourage marginalized students such as myself.

I have many obstacles but the biggest challenge for me now is struggling with the psychological trauma of gentrification and the violence it ensues in our communities. The cultural homogenization of my community as I knew it for generations is detrimental. Gentrification leaves communities of color at higher risk for losing their physical homes, businesses, community art monuments, sacred sites and support systems that give them a sense of belonging. People suffer collective loss because a whole web of connections is destroyed when people are uprooted and displaced. With these threats, the experience of collective trauma grows deeper and deeper every day.

With a Masters in Clinical Psychology, I have the training to understand trauma in many contexts. For those tenants who are facing homelessness and the darker side of gentrification, displacement, and/or eviction, it triggers a more harsh form of trauma that is considered to be complex. Complex trauma can occur as a result of repetitive and prolonged trauma involving unrelenting harm by a person or relationship with an uneven power dynamic. These symptoms include constant and prolonged feelings of terror, restlessness, worthlessness, helplessness, insomnia, and deformation of one’s reality. Experiencing these conditions and violations usually leave tenants in an extremely vulnerable position and they are unable to help themselves or anyone else.

We’d love to hear more about your work.
Restorative Justice For The Arts (RJFTA) is a grassroots community artivism project with the mission to protect cultural identity through the arts and allow marginalized people’s creativity to thrive. The project provides space for art as a decolonial praxis through mural restorations, legal protections for artists, community engagements, and art shows.

These events feature what I call Chunti Art shows and what Gloria Anzaldua calls Border artists (border art) which strive to inhabit the transitional space of nepantla (in-between-ness), and those who illustrate the polarization, political and social misrepresentation as witnessed by those excluded from mainstream art. RJFTA continues to educate communities and artists about the existing federal, state, and local legal protections for their visual artworks. However, even registered murals are at risk for vandalistic erasure. RJFTA has initiated a Legal Mural Defense Fund, that will help artists pay for legal advice when their mural or community art is whitewashed or eliminated.

As a participant witness, scholar, and artivist utilizing decolonial and Indigenous methodologies, I am currently investigating gentrification as a form of internal colonialism in my neighborhood which continuously feeds L.A.’s homelessness crisis. Gentrification is “cultural invasion.” California was part of the Republic of Mexico until 1848. For people of Mexican heritage living in Los Angeles, being displaced to make room for wealthy homesteaders and other new settlers triggers historical trauma of their land being stolen just seven generations ago. According to pedagogist Paulo Freire, in ‘cultural invasion’ the invaders impose their own view of the world upon those they invade and inhibit the creativity of the invaded by curbing their expression. 5 Gentrification affects every aspect of its community and environment.

Our research shows gentrification to be an ecopsychological injustice that severs ties between people, their histories and the land, thus violating one’s well-being. According to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention, “gentrification is a housing, economic and health issue that affects a community’s history, culture and reduces social capital. Aspects of gentrification create disparities in a community’s health. Displacement has many health implications that contribute to disparities among special populations such as the poor, women, children, the elderly and members of racial/ethnic minority groups.” 1 The discrimination and blatant racism have single-handedly contributed to the mass erasure of indigenous murals we are seeing across the nation in all major cities experiencing the cancer of gentrification.

While our murals are being whitewashed, gentrifier murals are appearing and replacing our decades’ old murals to advance the commercialization of our neighborhoods. Most of the gentrifier murals here in Highland Park have an insidious history behind them as well as the political and aesthetic protections funded by the architects of gentrification.

Though it may seem insignificant to some to resist gentrification and land-grabbing through street art, it is exactly the public expression that people need to remain seen and feel alive. Murals in the US continue to perform this function while grounding indigenous people in the cultural identities of their homelands. However, murals across Los Angeles are being illegally erased as part of extreme gentrification. Longtime residents of Highland Park were particularly heartbroken when one of our most iconic murals was illegally whitewashed in 2015.

This artwork completed in 1993 by John “Zender” Estrada entitled Resist Violence with Peace depicted a sacred Aztec warrior. Zender’s mural was legally registered with the L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) which states that murals created before October 12th, 2013 are defined as Vintage Original Artist Mural (VAM) or “grandfathered in” by the mural ordinance. Legal texts explain that “art vandalism… assaults the social order by targeting objects that embody shared cultural meaning.” 2 The erasure of this indigenous imagery caused outrage and sparked the community to engage in what Sandoval and Latorre call artivism—the “organic relationship between art and activism” that grants “access to a multiple of cultures… meshing identities and using these to create new angles of vision to challenge oppressive modes of thinking.” 3 The global mural movement originated in post-revolutionary Mexico City to express political resistance, justice, and liberation.

Here in the U.S., our cultural murals and graffiti art act as visual communication and as a voice for everyday people who do not have access to epistemic spaces such as museums, higher education, or art galleries due to their hierarchical modernized world of sense. As a response to these mural erasures, I founded Restorative Justice For The Arts to resist the vandalism of my community’s sacred artworks. My research investigates the importance of sacred Indigenous symbols and community art to healing collective traumas and resist discrimination. Sacred imagery opens “the possibility of learning or remembering history, ancestry, medicine, language, and other forms of ancient knowledge through visual culture.” 4 I am writing about this experience at a scholarly level to establish and document a counter-narrative against the manufactured narratives established by the architects of gentrification, gentrifiers and the gente-fied.

I am a storyteller by nature and am grateful at the opportunity to present my research in order to tell our side of the story and elaborate on how gentrification is violence. In the past year alone, I have published my research in The Community Psychologist and presented at Occidental College, National-Louis University, UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara, University of Illinois, and the Women’s Center for Creative Works Organization.

There are more than 300 families and growing in NELA who are now displaced and homeless because of gentrification. The children of our unsheltered families are mostly LAUSD students. The long-time residents of Highland Park, some teachers, activists, and community allies have come together to help organize fundraisers to provide our NELA families with food, gift cards and needed supplies. It is unjust that these stories are missing from the headlines. Most major and local news outlets are reluctant to report how gentrification feeds the current homelessness crisis and how whitewashing indigenous murals is a byproduct of gentrification, all in the name of advancing the commercialization of our neighborhoods.

Just recently, another iconic and beloved mural has been erased in Highland Park. This mural, known locally as the Migrant Farmworkers mural located at Garvanza Public Elementary School in Highland Park, was whitewashed between mid-September and mid-October during National Hispanic Heritage Month. Our community is brokenhearted at the loss of this widely acclaimed work by Daniel Cervantes that celebrated the vibrant cultural history of our migrant farm laborers by depicting their love and care for the land. The Highland Park community was further outraged that institutional sponsorships and legal protections did not save this mural from erasure. The Migrant Farmworkers mural was approved by local organizations and funded to completion in 2004 by The Cesar Chavez Foundation.

The federal Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which requires all to give a 90-day prior notice to artists whose work will be erased (whether registered or not) was not honored. Furthermore, the local community was not notified nor included in the decision-making process around the fate of Daniel Cervantes’ mural. Despite claims otherwise by the L.A. Unified School District’s (LAUSD) website, students and parents of Garvanza Elementary confirm that the mural was in good condition since being restored intermittently by our community members since 2013. This latest vandalization at Garvanza Elementary perpetuates the injustice against Indigenous histories and struggles, which have historically been left out of public school curriculum. Indigenous art, mythologies, and symbols are essential in preserving and maintaining cultural health and community well-being.

To address the collective trauma of losing cultural and artistic heritage, Restorative Justice For The Arts (RJFTA) organized a community vigil to memorialize the lost Migrant Farmworkers mural on Friday, October 25th, 2019 at Garvanza Park with a procession to the mural site at Garvanza Elementary. Speakers and participants included visual artists, community leaders, stakeholders, artivists, mural advocates, students, parents, social justice allies, and families. Together, we demanded that LAUSD support the restoration of the Migrant Farmworkers’ mural. We also proposed a new policy of alerting local Neighborhood Councils prior to the erasure of any murals so that the DCA and neighborhood constituents aren’t neglected and given transparent and due process, and their right to community input.

RJTFA is currently piloting this community-driven public policy with other grassroots organizations in hopes that neighborhood councils become official monitors of community artworks by helping to enforce the federal, state, and local protocols already in place to protect them. Our last public vigil to mourn the whitewashing of John Zender Estrada’s beloved 1993 Aztec Warrior mural brought attention to the mural honoring many Indigenous nations by Daniel Cervantes at the Southwest Museum of The Native American that had been whitewashed in 2013. This other Cervantes mural is currently being restored by artist Pola Lopez, serving as proof of the power of community action. Everyone in our community is extremely grateful to Pola Lopez for this beautiful restoration.

Currently, I am campaigning to save our most scared Indigenous mural in Highland Park which is currently threatened to be erased. The mural called Tenochtitlan, The Wall That Talks is legally registered with the Department of Cultural Affairs and considered a historic and cultural monument by the community. The mural site, located along the current Dollar Deals Store and ZMS Academy at 6029 & 6039 N. Figueroa Blvd, was sold for 5.8 million dollars in August 2019 to Fig Crossing LLC in Beverly Hills 90210. The new owner at Fig Crossing LLC plan to erase our sacred imagery and profound Indigenous iconography as early as March of this year. We are asking for letters of support from local neighborhood councils, businesses, academic institutions, and any individual or organization that supports our efforts in saving the sacred Tenochtitlan mural as well as the restoration of the migrant farmworkers mural by Daniel Cervantes. We are happy to announce that Restorative Justice For The Arts and The Cesar Chavez Foundation will be hosting a screening of the new “Hailing Cesar” documentary by Cesar Chavez’ grandson and Director Eduardo Chavez at Occidental College on the evening of Sunday, February 23, 2020. This screening will be followed by an amazing Q&A panel discussion.

Endnotes:

1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009, October 15), Health Effects of Gentrification, In Healthy Places.

2. Williams, M. J. (2008), Framing art vandalism: A proposal to address violence against art. Brooklyn Law Review, 74, pp. 595-596

3. Sandoval, C., & Latorre, G. (2008). Chicana/o artivism: Judy Baca’s digital work with youth of color. In A. Everett (Ed.), Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 82-83.

4. Zepeda, S. J. (2015). Queer Xicana Indígena cultural production: Remembering through oral and visual storytelling. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 4(1), p. 120.

5. Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition. 1970. Reprint, New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing.

What were you like growing up?
I grew up very humble, poor and attached to nature. Nature and art were my saviors. I loved school and what I knew as my vecindad (neighbourship). My vecindad was a lot like la vecindad in the Spanish speaking show called El Chavo. I was raised by a single mother and vicariously experienced all the hardships that came with a single parent’s struggle. Despite growing up a “latch key” kid, I felt safe and protected by my neighbors. I grew up in a very close-knit and warm community.

Our neighbors were not just neighbors our vecinos were like extended family members. Even though the chisme and drama were rampant when the going got rough we came together like a village. I grew up Chunti. “Chunti” is short for “chuntaros” commonly used by some Mexicans in Mexico and the U.S. to degrade or dehumanize the poorer, more rural indigenous Mexicans or what some may call our more unassimilated paisanos and un-acculturated newcomers.

Although chunti is mostly used to denigrate, I use it to resist de-indigenization. In my opinion, embracing your “chuntiness” is an act of challenging the colonial constructs on which westernized concepts are built. Chuntiness is embedded in humility and a colorful tradition of the experience of cultural multiplicity. The chunti consciousness is a survivor consciousness, El Campesino Ligado a La Naturaleza who is respectful and not wasteful. La Chuntariada honors indigenous cosmology, el poder de las plantitas, la humildad y el familismo. Chunti’s are connected to village consciousness. This consciousness respects the elders, honors la madre y la matriarca, the idea of hospitality, hard work, integrity, loyalty, humility, and la palabra (our word). Those of us who have embraced our chuntiness make a concerted effort to rebel and disrupt modernization and the status quo.

Maybe by now, you have heard all the rumors about how Highland Park was a bad neighborhood before it became gentrified but it’s quite the contrary. Highland Park was always a familia oriented, working-class vecindad with a very welcoming appeal. Yes, there were and still are gangs but let’s keep it real gangs are everywhere. Some are visible and some become invisible but they are always there. Growing up around gangs and the violence incited by them gave us the valuable street smarts and survival skills we all possess today. It’s all part of our barrio skills package that comes with our experience. Despite the hardships and adversities, I am grateful for the journey that I have experienced because it has made me the person that I am today. Experiencing hardships and traumas has led me on a unique path towards truth, reclamation and reconciliation.

Contact Info:


Image Credit:

John Zender Estrada, Daniel Cervantes and Brander A. Giron Jr.

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